ARLINGTON, Va. — Master Sgt. Chris Bickel first picked up a guitar at 13 years of age. But it wasn’t until after 20 years of military service that he found himself pursuing his true calling: songwriting.
Bickel first came down with his illness in September 2018, and he was in and out of the hospital for almost two years before finally getting an official diagnosis in August 2020, when he was assigned to the Walter Reed Soldier Recovery Unit (SRU).
After connecting with a nonprofit thanks to the efforts of the Army Recovery Care Program's (ARCP) Career and Education Readiness (CER) division, Bickel was invited out to Nashville, Tennessee where he wrote a song with two country artists. As part of the program, wounded warriors come out to Nashville to tell their story to professional songwriters who turn it into a song.
"The thought process behind it is taking negative parts of your military service and turning it into something positive, so you can process things in a non-negative way," Bickel said.
Bickel came away from the experience completely changed. He dove "headfirst" into songwriting and found out the nonprofit offered a songwriting program, and he started exploring that as a potential career.
"It's a growth market," Bickel said.
It's not a direction Bickel expected his life to take when he first got into the military. He served in military intelligence and expected to eventually take a job in contracting after that.
After his whole recovery experience, Bickel got reacquainted with his musical side.
"I played music my whole life: I played guitar at 13, and before 9/11 I had this pipe dream that I would be a rock star or guitar player," he said. "When 9/11 happened, I'd dropped all of that and joined the Army. I thought I'd spend three years there, but here I am 20 years later and playing anything even remotely resembling a professional level wasn't something I was considering."
After his health battles, he realized his military service was coming to an end, and it was time to think about life after the fact.
"I just didn't know who I was or where I was going or what I was doing," he said.
Now, Bickel knows his calling: to help other people have the same experience that he had. He knows how hard it is to transition, and he's been in the military for 20 years — what about a 22-year-old who is suddenly injured in Afghanistan? Bickel wants to help them find healing through music as well. Now, he's deeply involved in songwriting with the nonprofit and is already helping veterans.
"I would go into songwriting with a veteran months before — talk to them, get their story, and discuss the songwriting process," he said. "We do all of that then we go into songwriting. My job is to translate what the veteran is saying to the artists in a way that's easier for them to understand, as well as to keep the artist from changing the veteran's intent. It's not about writing the next No. 1 hit."
Bickel said he's moving to Nashville as soon as he can. He initially wasn't expecting to feel completely recharged after taking part in the songwriting program. And now he wants other Soldiers to get that feeling as well.
"It showed me there's a lot of options out there," he said. "And the pipe dream of doing music for a living doesn't have to be a pipe dream. You look at how hard it is to get into military special operations — if I can accomplish those things, I think I can write a song or two."
The Army Warrior Care and Transition Program is now the Army Recovery Care Program. Although the name has changed, the mission remains the same: to provide quality complex case management to the Army's wounded, ill and injured Soldiers. Visit us at